Yesterday I posted up a relatively objective article looking at the death of the Welsh national team manager Gary Speed. On average my blog has pulled in approximately 30-35 hits a day for the past month, mainly from a core group of fellow film blog writers keeping up to date with what is being said about film on-line. The Speed article however managed to gather up over 200 hits and counting. I’d normally be rejoicing that my writing had managed to get out to such a wide audience, but having a closer look at the statistical information about how the article was accessed I feel a little less euphoric.
The number one reason why most people were being drawn to the page yesterday was through a Google search – no surprise there. More distressingly people appeared to be most frequently searching the terms ‘gary speed gay’ (147 people, thus far). I’ve therefore a pretty good idea that those 147 people, clearly looking for a juicy piece of gossip strictly on the QT, were probably disappointed to come across some rather bland prose outlining the neglect of mental health issues in football finished off with a spot of pseudo-existential philosophising on the impossibility of really knowing anyone. In fact I’d go as far as to hazard a guess that few of those in search of a bit of prurient titillation hung about beyond the opening paragraph – and in some ways maybe that is gratifying. I wouldn’t like to suggest that there is something outright objectionable about people scouring the internet for a bit of salacious gossip, after all that is what us human beings do all too well. I’m just staggered that in light of Gary Speed’s tragic demise so many people resort to the default setting of wondering whether the suicide is the result of some forthcoming public ‘outing’.
Whilst talking about Speed amongst friends yesterday, a couple of rather heated discussions spilled forth. One person found the whole cavalcade of media and commentary generated by Speed’s death to be frankly disturbing. The question that they asked was as a direct result of what I had written yesterday and what the news media has likewise been covering, namely why are people so shocked about the suicide of a football player. To contextualise this question, the example of Amy Winehouse was given. A few months ago Amy Winehouse appears to overdose on booze and pills and yet few people were as shocked by her death as they are by Gary Speed’s. What was being suggested here was that people had made a tacit assumption about Speed’s suicide based on what they know of his professional life (even in the case of players and managers, they have only really spoken of the professional figure, the man they worked alongside), in the same way that people made tacit assumptions about Winehouse based on what they knew of her professional life and what parts of her private life had been made public. In the case of Speed there is a glaring absence of private life information for we the chattering multitudes to get our teeth into. In this vacuum of information, people are clearly searching around for answers anywhere they can find them, almost willing rumour to become fact, hearsay to become evidence.
Such behaviour reflects badly upon the mental health of large swathes of humanity. The media circus prompts us to trample upon the privacy of individuals who have chosen to do nothing more than a publicly visible job. When it comes to popstars, actors, sportspeople, we feel as if we are entitled to answers, as if we are not just a fan, but somehow a friend and family member. Nowadays, with such events as a suicide we are insinuated into the media coverage, with its insistent need to understand, to know, to explain how other people feel. An awful BBC interview with Robbie Savage when the news broke about Speed’s suicide, saw presenter Clive Myrie trying to cajole a clearly upset Savage into giving insights into something he patently knows very little about, namely the mental state of Gary Speed. What is the purpose of such endless probing? What more would any fellow football player be able to bring to the discussion other than a few choice anecdotes and a restatement of how shocking the death was and how ‘great’ and professional a guy Speed was? The only person who knows why this death occurred is dead. The only other people who may be able to shed a pale ray of light on the matter are understandably grieving the loss of a loved one. Meanwhile, we the gossiping masses, offer up our condolences whilst trawling around the echo-box internet looking for some anecdotal evidence that Speed might be gay.
As fans we may well have a depth of affection for Speed which made his death genuinely shocking, but, as I wrote yesterday, we did not know the man. Not even the likes of Robbie Savage knew the man. Savage at least played with the man, drank with the man, chatted with the man, but he still didn’t know the man. Hence all of this talk about how implausible his suicide seems, how out of character it appears to be, is really rather futile. In fact all of these why’s just promote this furtive game of Chinese whispers that rumbles on in the vacuum of genuine knowledge (I think here about Fran Lebowitz comments on modern news and journalism in Public Speaking, news is facts, what we have now isn’t news it’s opinion).
Suicide confronts everybody it touches with a sickening sense of mortality and it is in ourselves that we rummage around for the answers as to why, rarely appreciating that in such occurrences there are never going to be any answers, or certainly none that are straight-forward enough to be carried in the attention deficient modern media. A crudely simplistic notion of ‘gay’ outing is a suitably reductive answer, allowing the overly curious general public to go ‘ach, that’s why alright’. It nullifies any attempt at considering the greater problems that lead someone to choose death over public recognition of their sexuality. It also assumes that the invasive nature of a ‘public outing’ is something thoroughly acceptable and right – but then this has been a historical problem attached to certain moral views for a long time. If any such information does come forward in the next few days, I guarantee it will change absolutely nothing with regard to why Gary Speed felt the need to kill himself, so thus it serves merely as a palliative to us terribly wounded voyeurs out there.
Crucially, such a reductive answer to ‘why’, also restores a sense of order to the world, as at least we have an answer, we have something we can point to as a reason, we have an explanation. This makes all of us ‘feel better’, but once again does nothing to change the situation, or to take into account those who are genuinely grieving for the loss of a person who was important within their lives. Ultimately, it is a far scarier proposition to peer into the utter blackness of a galaxy-sized hole and realise that there is nothing in there that we can know, understand, or comprehend. After all, isn’t it the unknown where all of our worst nightmares reside?